Which makes this year's 2-0 start in league action all the more impressive. Penn State out-muscled Illinois 68-64 in Champaign Sunday, running its winning streak to seven games and adding a note of legitimacy to Wednesday's road victory at Northwestern.
The Lions (10-4, 2-0) finally appear to have what it takes to compete for an upper-tier finish in the conference.
I thought our kids had just a great effort, DeChellis said on his postgame radio show. We really played hard and made some plays.
Added forward Jamelle Cornley, whose 18 points and 12 boards led the way, I guess you can say we're for real. We expect to win.
The latest W was anything but pretty — State missed four critical free throws down the stretch and made only 20 of 55 shots on the day.
The Lions compensated for the poor shooting with brute force. They battered the much bigger Illini 49-24 on the boards and went to the free-throw line 35 times, making 24. Illinois (8-7, 0-2) was 8 of 14 from the stripe.
The game was tied 31-31 at the break and Penn State never trailed in the second half. But it never led by more than six points, either. It seemed every time Cornley and company were poised to put it away, they'd stub their collective toe with a bad decision or the Illini would hit a crazy bucket.
And so it was when, with PSU leading 56-50 and 5:39 remaining, that Illini guard Calvin Brock heaved in a deep triple. He was fouled by David Jackson on the shot, and converted the rare 4-point play to make it 56-54.
Cornley responded by powering a short jumper over center Shaun Pruitt to give State a bit of breathing room, but things remained tight the rest of the way.
Penn State was up 65-61 when point guard Talor Battle missed the second of two free throws with 23 seconds left, but forward Geary Claxton grabbed the offensive rebound. He was promptly fouled. And he promptly missed both ends with 16 seconds left.
The Illini flew up court and got a 3-pointer from guard Demetri McCamey, his second triple in less than 25 seconds, to trim the lead to 65-64. Illinois then fouled PSU guard Stanley Pringle, who made one of two to boost the edge to 66-64 with six seconds left.
The Illini hustled to the offensive end again, but McCamey missed a shot in the lane and Cornley rebounded. He was fouled with less than a second showing and made both free thows to seal the deal.
You can't say enough about him, DeChellis responded when asked about Cornley's clutch play.
And it is difficult to say enough about how the Nittany Lions have rebounded after an early season funk. With Cornley slowed by a knee bruise, State began the season 3-4, including three ugly losses in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando and a thumping at St. Joe's.
They had won all three of their home games at the time, including an impressive victory over Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. But the old knock of being unable to get anything done away from the Jordan Center appeared to be haunting the program yet again.
We're glad we got rid of that can't-win-on-the-road thing, DeChellis said.
This is the first time PSU has won its first two Big Ten road games since the 1995-96 season, when it beat Ohio State and Northwestern.
Claxton also had a double-double for the Lions (11 points, 11 rebounds), marking the second-straight game he and Cornley reached that level.
Penn State's 49 total rebounds were its most ever in a Big Ten game. The old record, set multiple times, was 44.
The Illini are in a tough state of affairs. They have lost three straight at home, to Tennessee State, Ohio State and Penn State.
Pruitt (6-foot-10) and Brian Randle (6-8) combined for eight boards, only three of them defensive.